Changing of the Guard: Q&A with new Atlanta Ballet artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin

Gennadi Nedvigin in Tomasson's Swan Lake.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Gennadi Nedvigin in Tomasson's Swan Lake. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Gennadi Nedvigin begins his new job as Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director on August 1 as just the fourth leader the ballet has had since its inception in 1929. Nedvigin will replace John McFall, who retires in June after more than 20 years leading Atlanta Ballet and taking it to new artistic heights.

Nedvigin, 39, was born in Rostov, Russia, and trained at the Bolshoi School. He performed with Le Jeune Ballet de France and Moscow Renaissance Ballet before he joined San Francisco Ballet in 1997 (and had to learn English on the fly). He was promoted to principal dancer in 2000 and frequently partnered with Vanessa Zahorian. “He is textbook perfect,” Zahorian told ArtsATL. “Everything is exact.”

Nedvigin was in Atlanta last Thursday to meet with Atlanta Ballet’s company dancers and also sat down for an interview with ArtsATL. Nedvigin discussed his vision for the company, the 2016-17 season and what factors led him to retire as a dancer and become the new leader of Atlanta Ballet.

This story concludes ArtsATL’s series of stories looking at the changes in new leadership that have infused four out of Atlanta’s five core arts institutions.

ArtsATL: What are your thoughts on the upcoming 2016-17 season?

Gennadi N (Photo by Chris Hardy; other photos by Charlie McCullers)
Gennadi Nedvigin (Photo by Chris Hardy; San Francisco ballet photos by Erik Tomasson)

Gennadi Nedvigin: I worked with the company members and staff to create this season because we didn’t have much time to prepare for it. So we decided we would do some of the ballets from previous years. I planned two programs myself that will give a hint of the direction I would like to take the company. I’m shooting for programs to have traditional works, classical pristine works that will help to communicate to the audience and slowly move them from classical works to more contemporary works.

In March, we’ll have a program that opens with Paquita. I will stage that one myself. I will rely on my classical training and experience of performing this ballet throughout my career, from school to recent performances in San Francisco. There will also be a new commissioned work for the company.

ArtsATL: You came here 18 months ago to stage choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony that was performed last season (and will be performed again in May). What was your impression of the company based on that experience?

Gennadi Nedvigin: I was very impressed with the dancers. But not just by the quality of dancing. I actually really, really enjoyed how we could work together as an ensemble to put the piece together. It was the most productive time I’ve spent working with any company. I had a great response from the dancers. They loved working on this ballet. We understood one another very easily. When we performed the work, I felt really proud of the dancers and that is not always the case.

ArtsATL: Have you had a chance to meet with the dancers?

Nedivign: Yes, we actually had a meeting with them today.

ArtsATL: What did you tell them?

Nedivign: I never felt like I had to address them from the beginning, it was a continuation from a year ago when I staged Classical Symphony. I opened the conversation with the same kind of words that I’m telling you right now, that I’m here to continue talking to you. I do like the conversations we had as peers, as co-workers, as friends and professionals, and I want to keep the communication going the same way as it started because that’s basically what brought me here. We talked about the season, the goals — basically what I just told you. I broke down what I want to share, and how much fun they’ll have working with those choreographers because that’s what I experienced myself.

063 - Classical Symphony Rehearsal-Atlanta Ballet
Nedvigin working with Atlanta Ballet for Classical Symphony. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

ArtsATL: As a dancer, how did that Classical Symphony stretch you or challenge you, and how do you see it stretching or challenging other dancers?

Nedivign: Yuri and I went to the same school and went through the same teachers. He is a friend of mine. We worked together in San Francisco for more than 10 years. I’ve worked with him on many of his ballet productions, and his creations are always so different from one to the other. We had to chance to do Classical Symphony in Atlanta last year, and that performance was really, really successful. Classical Symphony was actually dedicated to a teacher who passed away a few years after it was created. So Classical Symphony is a special ballet for us. Because Yuri was basing it on classical moves, the challenge was for the dancers to have classical techniques. Even for myself, when you haven’t performed any classical ballet for a while, little things start slipping out. For me, it was very important to bring the company and the dancers back to that level where they can show their techniques in the best possible way in classical training. And on top, put that extra flair of classical or contemporary moves that Yuri brought.

And actually, when I first learned and staged the ballet, taught the ballet, I had to learn it all; every single part I can go and dance. I found out that the women’s sections had so much more freedom in movement. I enjoyed so much learning all the moves that the female dancers got to do. I went back to Yuri and said, “That is so not fair. You left the men with all the simplest things and took all the fun away and gave it all to the ladies.” (laughs)

ArtsATL: We’re going to see Possokhov’s Firebird next season; how is it different?

Nedivign: Honestly, I don’t want to go into details. It will take away from the audience. I want the audiences to see for themselves how wide Yuri’s imagination can go. So please excuse me not to share that. It’s like not spoiling movie when you go to a movie theater.

Nedvigin shows classic form.
Nedvigin was viewed as a precise and exacting dancer.

ArtsATL: You said the two programs you’re doing next season will give us an idea of your vision for the ballet. What is your vision for Atlanta Ballet?

Nedivign: By the choice of ballets that I will be bringing to Atlanta Ballet, you will be able to chart the direction I plan on going. It includes moving from classical to neoclassical and contemporary works. I want to be in that spectrum, to give that variety to dancers and to the audience. I want to challenge both, the dancers and the audience. I think everybody needs to be challenged. I do want to find a language with everybody by bringing in those works. My choices are careful, even with the time I’ve been given to prepare it.

On a bigger scale, I’d like to much more consistently perform the ballets that were specially created for the company, that nobody else is performing. Or works that are known by executing them at the highest possible level; we can show how strong the company is. With that platform, in the future — it will take a few years to get started to go somewhere — I would want to explore different stages in the country, in the world and bring the company to new heights and to new audiences and widen the range of our reach.

ArtsATL: One thing these dancers are used to is a carefully cultivated, non-competitive environment where “creativity is unencumbered.” Those are words coming from John McFall. Part of that comes from a company that organized without a hierarchy. It’s unusual for a ballet company. What is your point of view on hierarchy?

Nedivign: At San Francisco Ballet, we have a hierarchical company. I did work with Le Jeune Ballet de France for a year, and that company was non-hierarchical. So I did get some experience with that. Even with no ranks, every company has dancers that assume to be doing main roles. So in a way, it’s there but not announced. And I talked about that with dancers today as well. They asked if I was going to change the system next year. I said, no, I’m not going to jump in and start changing things. I want to learn more about it,  I want to learn about the benefits. But I wanted them to know also that they might like what’s here and not want me to change it, at the same time, I want them to have the openness of their mind. There are other benefits they might get. How do you recognize dancers who get the lead parts and stand out among their peers in a non-hierarchical company? Okay, within the company we know, but the audience doesn’t. If you name that person a soloist or a principal, it’s recognition of the dancer’s achievements over years. I think it’s important also to give that respect to dancers. At the moment, I don’t know whether I want to keep the same as it is now, or introduce changes to a ranking system.

In San Francisco, we do have a ranking system, but we do get to perform on the same stage — corps de ballet and principals — doing principal roles side by side. So that’s not necessarily stopping dancers from dancing leading roles as well. And that’s how a dancer in the corps de ballet grow and become principals. Everybody needs to be challenged.

Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine's Coppélia. (© Erik Tomasson)
Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine’s Coppélia.

ArtsATL: What is your experience working with choreographers such as Yuri Possokhov? Does he invite you to contribute some of your ideas to the choreography? Is that the kind of creative process that you want to encourage with this company?

Nedivign: It depends on the choreographer. They’re the boss in the studio. Yuri does like to use collaboration with the dancers. I’ve seen him work with dancers and he likes to use their personalities, he tries to find what fits best for that dancer or use their qualities to demonstrate the story or some feelings that are needed in that ballet. Other choreographers use dancers even more. Like Forsyth, he gives you the language and then says, “Go ahead, go use it.” Every choreographer has their personality, and that’s the creative process. I’ll give freedom to the choreographers.

ArtsATL: Dancers here have been encouraged to contribute in that way. Would that affect your selection of choreographers, hoping to find one who fits in well with dancers who can contribute?

Nedivign: That will be one of the criteria that I’ll be looking into in choosing choreographers.

ArtsATL: How did you become interested in dancing?

Nedivign: I followed my older brother’s footsteps. We’re five years apart. We were the two siblings, and my mom was in love with the ballet. She came from a small village where there were no ballet schools, so she must have thought, “Well, I didn’t get to become a ballerina, and I have two boys, but I’ll still try.” (laughs) We both enjoyed dancing. Then my brother went into gymnastics, and I went the same way. I always looked up to my brother, and I followed his footsteps. I went to gymnastics, then I also played the accordion, and he didn’t. I was seven and my brother went back to ballet school. He went to Bolshoi school to audition and was accepted. Later on, I was coming to visit him in school and a teacher said, “Oh, the little one, bring him along and let’s see if he’s talented.” And sure enough, I was. (laughs)

It was very much like you were dedicating yourself wholly to the profession that you were learning from the beginning, and you would not imagine changing the role unless something happened. Once you stood in that role, you continued, and you go. And in a way, I’m thrilled that I’m able to continue this role, to continue the tradition and stay with ballet.

Sometimes, I’d think, “Well, what am I going to do when I stop dancing? Become a florist?” (laughs) This opportunity came along, and I’m fortunate to be here and to be given the chance to do what I’m here to do.

ArtsATL: The folks in San Francisco thought you might have retired as a dancer a year or two too early. Any thought of putting on the tights here?

Nedivign: It’s true, I retired two or three years before I had to. Being given the opportunity to be the artistic director here, I willingly prioritized that. For myself, it will work better if I do one thing rather than trying to be an active dancer and artistic director. This season was extremely busy for me as a dancer. I had to be a dancer, a ballet master — I was working on a piece that Yuri created last year — and then all this news broke, and I had to be part of conversations about the next season. So I was almost doing three jobs at once. I think it’s overwhelming. And the quality lacks a little bit. I made the decision to stop dancing after this season. and I intend to devote myself fully to being artistic director of the company.

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